It looks like Colorado is about to face our third round of major recessionary state budget cuts since the turn of the millenium. While the 2001 budget cuts and the Great Recession at the end of that decade were brought on by pernicious and growing structural economic forces over time, the economic collapse we’re about to endure was sudden and shocking. We learned this week that the economy contracted by nearly 5% between January and March, the worst since the last quarter of 2008.
Each of the last major downturns triggered multiple years of tough budget cuts for Colorado. Public school districts, as parents and teachers will attest, have never fully recovered. This next round of cuts in the era of COVID-19 will likely be even worse. That means if Colorado is to avoid a fiscal pandemic on top of a viral pandemic, the federal government needs to step in. But if recent comments from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump hold, Colorado has reason to worry.
McConnell has openly declared that he believes states should go bankrupt. And true to form, Donald Trump has outdone him by suggesting he would hold state and local aid hostage to political demands on immigration. Fifty states are about to experience the type of treatment the Ukrainian president received when Trump said he wanted a favor. Once again, Colorado’s junior Senator Cory Gardner finds himself stuck between doing right by Colorado and serving political expediency. As the most vulnerable Republican
Senator up for re-election in 2020, Sen. Gardner has been the recipient of recent presidential political favors, specifically a mere 100 of the 500 ventilators Governor Jared Polis secured before FEMA swooped in and bought them out from under us. It would stand to reason that Gardner could once again persuade his political allies in Washington to throw Colorado a budgetary lifeline as our state faces billions in budget cuts when we
were looking at surpluses just two months ago.
I was a staffer in the Colorado House of Representatives during the last time Colorado was forced to cut over a billion dollars out of our state budget when revenues began to fall as a result of the Great Recession. Colorado’s constitution requires our state to pass a balanced budget every year, unlike Washington D.C., which, thanks in large part to Sen. Gardner and Donald Trump’s massive tax cuts for the wealthy, ended 2019 with a trillion dollar deficit.
But the pain doesn’t stop at the intersection of Colfax and Sherman in Denver. Our cities, counties and special districts will have to cut hundreds of millions out of their budgets as well. Local governments in Colorado fund our firefighters, paramedics and police officers — the very first responders fighting alongside healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
In fairness to Sen. Gardner, he did cosign a letter with Gov. Polis and Sen. Michael Bennet asking the Senate majority and minority leader for state and local assistance, but we know that he could use his political connections in Washington to ensure our state and local governments don’t have to cut through the bone again during the oncoming recession if he really stood up for us. Letter writing won’t balance the budget. Either Washington will support us to the degree the moment demands, or we will witness a fiscal catastrophe from the statehouse to every firehouse and schoolhouse in Colorado. Coloradans have grown accustomed to Cory Gardner’s dual identities–a guy wearing Carhartt jackets in TV ads, and the other Cory Gardner who jetsets in bespoke suits to drink $1,000 bottles of champagne at Palm Beach mansions. We know from the last recession that the economic pain Americans endured was prolonged greatly by the insufficient allocation of aid to state and local governments, forcing cuts that created a 50-state budget nightmare across the country. McConnell’s plan to stonewall federal funding to state and local governments will be a disaster for Colorado.
In Cory Gardner and Donald Trump’s partisan America, where lifesaving ventilators are handed out as favors to political allies, we’re about to learn if the 50 states curry the same favor as multi-billion dollar corporations and wealthy Republican donors. If we can generate trillions of dollars out of thin air to keep payrolls running in the private sector, we can certainly deliver a fraction of that to ensure that teachers, first responders, and public health professionals don’t end up on the unemployment lines while high-end cruise ship operators and billionaire hoteliers cash checks written by the American taxpayer and signed by a frighteningly insecure president.
Ian Silverii is the executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, the state’s largest progressive advocacy group.
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